September 19, 2013

In Yarmouth, invading deer pose mystery

But one farmer has a theory: They're eating his lettuce because parked train cars block the path to a hayfield

By Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

YARMOUTH – Bruce Hincks couldn't figure out why they invaded – until he thought about the train cars.

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Farmer Bruce Hinck of Yarmouth has been having problems with deer eating his lettuce crop this season, which he believes is caused by the hundreds of train oil cars parked on a nearby siding which in effect trap them on his side of the train tracks.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Gabe Souza

Nothing, it seemed, could prevent the horde of deer from infiltrating his 15-acre Meadowood Farm, where they have chewed through 4,000 heads of lettuce this summer – an unprecedented crop loss for the small operation.

The deer that live in the woods north of his property on Beckwith Street usually cross the nearby Pan Am Railways tracks and feast in a hayfield on the other side. For at least the last month, though, a line of about 100 oil tank cars on the tracks has blocked their path, Hincks believes.

The losses are mounting, he said, up to $10,000 worth of ruined plants. His exasperation growing, Hincks said he is prepared to buy a gun and take matters into his own hands.

Pan Am Railways, which owns the line, has parked the tanker cars because of decreased demand for transporting crude oil by rail to refineries in Canada. In their place, tanker ships are delivering crude in large batches to the deep-water port at St. John, New Brunswick.

A Pan Am Railways executive said last week that it's uncertain how long market conditions will keep the train on the side rail in Yarmouth.

"I've talked to wardens, I've talked to everybody," Hincks said. "They say there's no way in heck you'll move that train."

He said he hasn't called Pan Am Railways to complain or ask that the train car be moved.

Railroad officials could not be contacted for comment Wednesday night.

Although he has no way to be sure that the string of train cars is to blame for the increase in deer damage, Hincks said he can't find any other logical explanation.

A Maine Warden Service spokesman lent some credence to the idea that a long, stationary train could affect wildlife.

"In general, deer cannot cross underneath or in between rail cars," said John MacDonald, spokesman for the warden service.

The string of about 100 tankers, stretching about a mile from the area of Greely Road north, is long enough to prevent the natural movement of deer.

Blocked by the rail cars on one side and a suburban neighborhood on the other, the animals have gravitated to the crops that Hincks grows to sell at farmer's markets, he believes.

Hincks and his business partner, Don Beckwith, have tried every method they know to keep deer away from the leafy produce.

Eight-foot-high netting around the fields usually keeps them out, but deer can jump it easily if they are motivated, Hincks said.

The farmers planted extra clover as sacrificial vegetation to try to minimize the damage.

They sprinkled human urine and spread blood meal -- both pungent repellents -- around the fields.

They even subjected the animals to an aural assault, playing talk radio for hours at night in the hope that it would fool the deer into thinking there was a person in the field.

Through it all, the deer got in.

MacDonald said farmers usually expect some loss of crops to herbivores. The state often helps orchards and vegetable growers take counter-measures against deer.

If all else fails, farmers can seek nuisance-hunting permits, which allow a few pre-approved hunters to camp out and kill a preset number of animals.

So far, hunters have not found any of the culprits at Meadowood Farm.

Hincks' theory about the train cars blocking the animals' path came from a neighbor, Frank Hilton III.

Hilton said that in his 35 years living next to Hincks, he had never seen a summer with so many deer.

Usually, the nearby hayfield provides a healthy habitat, with a water source, cover for sleeping and, of course, plenty to eat.

He believes that at least one herd is trapped in the wooded area north of the farm.

"We're talking a dozen, 15, easy," Hilton said. "That's quite a herd."

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: 

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